An aircraft carrier is a ship whose main battery (the air group) can fire 150 to 200 miles with devastating accuracy and whose lookouts can clearly see the same distance under average weather conditions. No other type of ship in existence today can approach such a performance and no other type of ship is in any way a match for an aircraft carrier.
The aircraft carrier has been pictured as a fighter with a terrific wallop and a glass jaw. Let us examine the truth of this statement. The aircraft carrier is vulnerable to gunfire, submarine attack, and air attack, and aircraft carriers have been sunk in this war by all three of these means. There is no excuse for an aircraft carrier being sunk by either gunfire or submarine attack and any carrier so sunk was being very poorly operated at the time. A battleship or even a large cruiser could very easily sink an aircraft carrier if she could close the range sufficiently to bring the carrier under fire. How such a ship can close the range from 200 to 20 miles in the face of a hostile air group and against a ship which is as fast or faster is something of a mystery. Only extremely bad weather or a lucky break could turn the trick and this, of course, will seldom happen. As far as submarine attacks are concerned, if the carrier maintains a speed of at least 20 knots the probability of a successful submarine attack is very low. Unfortunately some carriers in this war have been tied to 10-knot tankers and transports as if they had guns sticking out every port and all the underwater protection in the world. It is remarkable that such ships have not been hit more often than they have.
An aircraft carrier like any warship will always be vulnerable to air attack, but with its defending fighter planes it has a better defense than any other type of ship in existence. One good fighter plane squadron is worth more than all the anti-aircraft fire of an entire task force as an air defense. In reality then the aircraft carrier, far from being vulnerable, is actually better protected than other types of ships in modern aero-sea warfare.
It is rather evident then that the aircraft carrier has emerged as the most formidable surface type ship today. Let us then examine it not only in relation to its surface opponents but also in relation to its aerial opponents. The Battle of Jutland was the outstanding naval engagement of the last war and from it came our most advanced naval thinking. The Battle of Midway has been the outstanding naval engagement of this war and by closely examining it we may see the true picture of all the sea and air units in their true relation to each other today.
The Japanese brought to Midway a large armada which included all modern combatant ship types including at least four aircraft carriers, two or three battleships, several large cruisers, and many lesser combatant ships. This armada was first attacked by shore-based aircraft of the most modern type including the famed Army Flying Fortresses.
Some scattered direct hits and many near misses were scored but the main Japanese naval units remained substantially intact and continued to advance. Land-based aircraft skillfully operated and ably flown had failed to stop the attack. The Army fliers did a good job but they didn’t have the weapon with which to sink ships. The Japanese proceeded to launch a tremendous air attack from their carriers on Midway which almost laid the defenders low. It was their intent to destroy the defending aircraft with this attack and then bring up their battleships to pound the shore defense to pieces. The plan was a good one and would undoubtedly have succeeded but for one thing—American aircraft carriers.
The American carriers proceeded to launch an air attack on the Japanese carriers which brought them to a standstill in very short order and resulted in the crippling and eventual sinking of all four of them. Before this could be completed the Japanese had located the carrier Yorktown and put her out of action with a well-coordinated air group attack. Seagoing air power especially trained and fitted with the aerial weapon most deadly to surface ships, namely, the dive bomber and the torpedo plane, had accomplished what land-based air power had failed to do. The air power of the advancing Japanese Armada had disappeared and without this air power they could advance no farther. The picture which then existed was that of a greatly superior enemy surface fleet which included battleships helpless to advance in the face of a greatly inferior surface fleet without battleships which still possessed some seagoing air power. (This should dispose of the statement that we must have battleships if the enemy has battleships.) Not only could this mighty enemy armada advance no farther but it had to retire at maximum speed to prevent serious losses of main fleet units by air attacks. The pictures of the damaged Japanese supercruiser Mogami indicate that this retirement was not fast enough.
What lessons then can we draw from the Battle of Midway? I think the following points have been clearly demonstrated and all future naval strategy and tactics must take them into account: (1) The aircraft carrier, not the battleship, is the backbone of the fleet. (2) The aircraft carrier is not in the fleet to protect surface ships but as the main offensive striking weapon. (3) The aircraft carrier enjoys a superiority over other contemporary surface ship types which is greater than any previous type of ship has enjoyed over its contemporaries in all history. (4) Land-based air power as exemplified by the big bomber doing high altitude horizontal bombing is ineffective against a fleet equipped with seagoing air power. (5) The role of the battleship as a weapon with which to win naval battles at sea à la Jutland has practically vanished. (6) Any attempt to say that naval battles will be fought by lines of battleships once the carriers have been sunk is wishful thinking—somebody’s carriers won’t be sunk and he will have complete control of the situation.
In summation, this war was started with all the world’s navies thinking in terms of Jutland and the battleship as the principal weapon—the aircraft carrier was an untried weapon. It is an untried weapon no longer and the Navy that is going to win this war is the Navy that thinks in terms of Midway and the aircraft carrier. Air power has not displaced sea power—air power is sea power. The principles of naval warfare as laid down by Mahan still hold —only the weapons have changed. To those who know how to use the new weapons most effectively will go the victory.